In the 1950s, author Robert Schnakenberg’s father was the letter carrier who delivered jazz legend Louis Armstrong’s mail. “Louis would say, ‘Hi Mr. Mailman’ and sometimes Louis and his wife would invite my dad in for coffee. That is sort of my claim to fame.”
It also began a career Schnakenberg says involves “lurking around the edges of famous people.” The author of more than a dozen books, including The Encyclopedia Shatnerica and Christopher Walken A-to-Z, Schnakenberg’s latest is The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray, a weighty tome analyzing the life and career of everybody’s favourite Ghostbuster.
“They’re more history books than puff pieces about celebrities,” he says on the line from his Brooklyn home. “I wanted to approach them from a quasi or mock academic perspective and treat them as if they were historic artifacts rather than just pop culture icons.”
Murray was a perfect subject for the pop historian. “I had done two previous A-to-Zs and was looking around for a third person to round out the trilogy. I had visions of a three volume slip case edition in my head.”
Murray fit the criteria. “Who has a long career? Who has left a paper trail of interviews and profiles? Who has an off-camera persona that is just as interesting as what they do onscreen? It just clicked last year. He reached a point of saturation with all these viral videos going around that (the publisher) said, ‘Let’s do the book now.’”
The volume provides an overview of Murray’s long and varied time in the public eye. From critical appreciations of his films, to interesting trivia, The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray spans decades of fascinating behaviour.
“His career provides a lot of entry points for people who want to get into him,” says Schnakenberg. “If you came of age in the ’70s, the way that I did, you remember the Saturday Night Live version of Bill Murray. If you were 13 in 1984 you probably think of him as Ghostbusters Bill Murray. If you were a proto-hipster in the ’90s your image is probably the guy in all the Wes Anderson movies. Now people know him as the dishevelled guy who crashes people’s parties.”
The point is, for almost forty years Bill Murray has been a constant in our lives. “Bill Murray never had to come back because he never went away,” says the author. “He was always cool; just cool in different forms over the years.”
On Sept. 5, the Reel Guys will be wearing our matching glow-in-the-dark Dr. Venkman khaki T-shirts to celebrate TIFF’s Bill Murray Day. Beginning at 10 a.m., the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto will feature free screenings of Stripes, Groundhog Day and, everybody’s favourite, Ghostbusters, in advance of the world premier of Murray’s new movie St. Vincent. “I’m a nut,” Murray says, “but not just a nut.” His movies, which range from nutty comedies to dramas and everything in between, show his range. Today, as we celebrate the genius that is Bill Murray, the Reel Guys select a few must-sees.
Richard: Mark, I feel happy just knowing that I live in the same world as Bill Murray. I’ve never met him, but his very existence and the existence of films like Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Lost in Translation and any of his movies with Wes Anderson make my world a better place.
If I had to choose one little-seen Murray movie to tout, it would be Where the Buffalo Roam — his take on the life of the high priest of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not a great film, but it’s worth it to hear Murray say the famous line, “I hate to advocate drugs or liquor, violence, insanity to anyone, but, in my case, it worked.”
Mark: Richard, here’s my pick for a little-known film starring Murray: The Razor’s Edge. At the height of Murray’s first round of fame, he managed to miscast himself in a Somerset Maugham costume drama about a man’s search for spirituality.
His acting style is completely at odds with the rest of the material, as he’s playing the part as a louche 19th-century wiseass. And you know what? I love it!
Also from this time period, the mid-’80s, is the underrated Scrooged, a great retelling of A Christmas Carol. Traditionalists who fondly remember Alistair Sims would be aghast, but Murray really knows how to shake off the cobwebs and make the movie funny and oddly touching.
RC: Have you seen Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson? He plays Franklin D. Roosevelt and he gives the kind of effortless performance that made me wonder what might have happened to his career if The Razor’s Edge hadn’t been such a flop, forcing him back into comedy. But he can switch back and forth easily.
The same year he played an undertaker in Get Low, he also played an exaggerated version of himself as a man who plays at being a zombie during the apocalypse so he can continue playing golf unbothered by the undead in Zombieland.
It’s a surreal cameo that, like most of Murray’s appearances, is worth the price of admission.
MB: There may be bad movies that Bill Murray is in but there are no bad Bill Murray movies. He consistently rises above the material. But when the script is top-notch, there is no beating him.
I’m thinking here of Groundhog Day — one of the best and smartest comedies of the past 30 years.
He takes a clever idea and turns it into something transcendent, even philosophical. Great movie, great performance.
RC: In the transcendent and philosophical pile, I’d throw in Broken Flowers, where Murray plays a man on a journey to reconnect with all the women he knew before he became a burned-out Don Juan.
Ebert gave this four out of four stars; I give it five out of four. It’s that good.
MB: Yes, a great role for him. But consider this: his supporting role in Tootsie, where he nearly steals scenes from the great Dustin Hoffman.
If you can’t make it to the Toronto International Film Festival but still want to get a flavour of the films, the Reel Guys — Richard Crouse and Mark Breslin — have some movies and some memories for you. They’ve been attending the festival for years and have seen it all, from actors’ tears to classic films to medical emergencies to stars being born. It’s a wild time, but like Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Richard: Mark, I’ve been going to TIFF for 30 years and covering it for almost 20 so I can’t even begin to imagine how many movies I’ve seen in the 10 days after the first Thursday after Labour Day. Hundreds? Thousands? Somewhere in between, I’m sure. There have been many standouts, but my mind immediately goes to Lost in Translation. Perhaps because it’s Bill Murray Day (isn’t every day?), but I remember walking out of that theatre thinking I had just seen a star being born. Bill Murray was great, but Scarlett Johansson was memorable. She had been in things before, but that movie and TIFF made her a star that day.
Mark: Great film, Richard, but I saw it on a rainy night in Vancouver. If you want to go way, way back, I saw the gala premiere of The Big Chill at University Theatre in 1983. It was the first film that channeled baby boomer angst and it hit me hard — in a good way. So many great performances, but I still remember William Hurt and Kevin Kline. Meg Tilly has the best line when she says, “I don’t know many happy people. What are they like?”
RC: One of the things that happens at TIFF is you see movies that never open anywhere for some reason. What Doesn’t Kill You, a gritty crime drama set in South Boston starring Ethan Hawke, Mark Ruffalo and Amanda Peet, was one of those. I really liked the movie and I hosted the press conference and that’s where something really memorable, for me, happened. During the conference, I looked over and Ruffalo had his head in his hands. At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Was he tired? Taking a break from the conversation? Asleep? Turns out the conversation and questions had made him emotional and he was crying. I didn’t expect him to break down into tears and be unable to speak, but Hawke jumped in and spoke about how Ruffalo is a committed actor who completely throws himself into his roles.
MB: There’s more to that story … Just before the press conference, for no apparent reason, I shivved Ruffalo in the left kidney, and he must have been in a lot of pain. But I know what you mean by movies that don’t open. The film immediately disappeared. Then there was the recent Lebanese movie The Attack, which was a harrowing story of a Palestinian doctor who finds out his wife is a terrorist. After the film, the director did a Q&A describing death threats he got and the tribulations he endured just to get the film made. It was almost as good as the film itself.
RC: You never know what will happen at the screenings, whether it’s a wild Q&A or the audience reaction. A few years ago the amputation sequence in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, was so intense several members of the audience required medical attention.
MB: Sometimes the volume of movies you see yields unexpected results. I remember the Saturday night I saw Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air immediately followed by the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. My two favourite movies of 2009, back to back!